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Kaavya Viswanathan takes a break from Harvard

Last updated on: April 29, 2006 06:44 IST
Harvard University does not know how to deal with its student Kaavya Viswanathan just yet.

Viswanathan, who was born in Chennai and raised in Scotland before her parents migrated to America, is the most scrutinised author and student in the US following her admission that she had 'internalized' some passages for her novel from two-bestselling novels she read when she was in high school.

The teenager has taken a few days off from Harvard after making a brief appearance on the NBC television channel's popular Today show, telling its hosts: 'When I was writing, I genuinely believed each word was my own.'

Her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life has been accused of lifting passages and scenes from Megan McCafferty's first two books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.

The 19-year-old writer was confident that she would not be punished by Harvard, telling the Today show: 'I don't see why they would (take action). It's a genuine, genuine mistake.'

But at Harvard there is confusion about the case, amidst speculation that Viswanathan will not return to the elite university.

In Harvard's first statement regarding Viswanathan, who is majoring in English, Robert Mitchell, director of communications for Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told The New York Times on Tuesday: 'Our policies apply to work submitted to courses. Nevertheless, we expect Harvard students to conduct themselves with integrity and honesty at all times.'

The next day, in an e-mail note he told "Harvard College takes any accusation of plagiarism very seriously. And we certainly investigate accusations of plagiarism when brought to our attention. However, our policy does not permit us to discuss individual situations. We expect Harvard students to conduct themselves with integrity and honesty at all times."

While speculation mounted that Viswanathan could be encouraged to leave Harvard, Mitchell told The Harvard Crimson newspaper and other publications that he has not used the word 'investigation' in his statements.

His comment came soon after the news service Bloomberg reported that Harvard would investigate Viswanathan.

"The term 'investigation' has been used in the press," Mitchell said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "It is not a term that we have used, so it is not entirely accurate."

"We would need to gather much more information on this situation before we could make any kind of judgment," Mitchell said. "Bloomberg decided to call 'gathering information' an 'investigation.' This is not a term that we have used."

Meanwhile, Little, Brown, the publisher of Opal Mehta is not making Viswanathan available for interviews, except in the case of the Today show. Messages left by this correspondent, who interviewed her before the controversy broke, on her answering machine have not been returned.

There is speculation that Little, Brown may not publish her second Opal Mehta novel. She was paid $500,000 advance for two Opal Mehta books

Crown, a division of the publishing giant Random House, that publishes Megan McCafferty's novels, has slammed Viswanathan's apology.

'Based on the scope and character of the similarities, it is inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act,' a statement from Random House said.

The Boston Globe newspaper reported that Steve Ross, senior vice-president and publisher, Crown while not saying if Random House has asked Little Brown to withdraw Viswanathan's novel from book stores, told the newspaper: 'Our lawyers are reviewing all options.'

The news is apparently helping sales of the book, the Globe discovered. On Monday it was ranked 178 on; on Wednesday it was 68. It has reportedly sold about 5,000 copies across the country. Ross said the plagiarism has devastated McCafferty, adding she is 'not sleeping, not eating.'

'She feels like something fundamental was taken,' he told the Globe. 'We all felt it was important that we come to her defense and make clear that we support our author. The notion that this was accidental stretches credibility to the breaking point.'

Viswanathan told just about a week ago that though literature is her passion, she wanted to "dabble in the financial world."

Getting an MBA would be a natural goal for her, she said.

Would she be interested in studying at the famed Harvard Business School?

"If they have me, surely," she said with a chuckle.

Arthur J Pais in New York